In the spring of 1947, as I was riding home from school, I developed severe stomach pains. I told my mother I wanted to lie down, an unheard of proposal before that moment. It took three days before I was rushed to an emergency room and treated for acute appendicitis and peritonitis. Several things conspired to delay treatment: our old doctor in Schenectady thought the body best healed itself and advised my mother to wait; we were between health plans; my father was out of town, looking for a new job; my Connecticut doctor was on an island without phone service, taking care of the Lindberg children.
Ever since, I’ve respected pain, as something that shrinks your world to nothing but suffereing. I can still recall the cool drip of ether down my cheek as the pain ebbed away. Later I awoke in the children’s burn ward to the misery of children moaning in their beds and the smell of burnt flesh. Every morning the nurses woke up the children and made them sing, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, and smile, boys, smile.” It seemed cruel and unusual punishment.
Some time later my parents moved me into a private room. Green walls, white gauze curtains blowing in a breeze coming through an open window, a real mattress and soft sheets. My mother brought me a package of frozen raspberries, the first food I would eat. I began to rally but it would be another ten days before I left the hospital.
I watched the second-hand on the clock in my hospital room, tired of the radio and comic books. The hours wore heavily.
Bored to tears, I begged my mother to read to me. She picked Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Treasure Island and left the book on the table next to me when she went home for the night. I picked it up and started the next chapter. I didn’t put Treasure Island down until Jim Hawkins was safely home, the pounding sea still a nightmare on sleepless nights.
Reading became a lifetime habit. It revealed alternative worlds as compelling as those of my childhood fantasies. People raised on television may never experience the intensity of childhood reading. Movies and television can be mesmerizing and I can forget entirely where I am or what I’m doing. But reading requires imagining the fullness of characters from a few words on a page. Readers take part in the story telling … filling in their own details from the writer’s clues. Which is why when you read these books later in life, they tell different stories.
Reading reinforced my idealized view of life. How could I not help but identify with Jim Hawkins, living in the Admiral Benbow on the coast road to Bristol, befriending Captain Billy Bones and losing his father before the end of chapter two? Or CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Zane Grey’s western heroes. They inevitably were decent people, frequently in contrast to the mob around them. Jane Withersteen, a Mormon woman forced to choose between her church and her love, “worked for the welfare and happiness of those among whom she lived, Mormon and Gentile alike.” Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey, p. 94.
It seemed to me that we all should try to live that way. The fiction of today is much darker and perhaps more realistic, but don’t we lose something as a culture when we lose our noble heroes?